The morning after we anchored in Rock Sound (again) to trouble shoot our starboard engine, we were woken by an approaching thunderstorm. It was about 0545 on March 11th, the first day after the time jumps ahead an hour, so it was still very dark out. Our berth has a large window right next to the bed, so the flashes of lightning were lighting up everything around us. Even though we could just barely hear the thunder, we couldn’t get back to sleep with the frequent flashes so we went up to the salon to watch the show.
We were anchored on the east side of the sound, as were most boats, since the prevailing winds were from the east and not forecast to change to westerlies until the next day. I think there were 18-20 boats around us, and you can see a lot of their anchor lights when I pan the iPhone around. We sat up in the salon for maybe 15-20 minutes, but as you can see from the video, the storm was a long ways away as we couldn’t yet hear the thunder beyond some far off rumbles.
Christa has always enjoyed watching lightning and went back down below to watch from the berth, after a casual question about whether we should put anything in the microwave for protection. The theory for doing this is that the basic shape, and electromagnetic shielding of a microwave makes it a pretty good Faraday cage to protect your electronics…as long as you unplug it. This is important when you’re far off shore and losing your navigation aids and radios could be a critical problem. Since we were surrounded by other boats, and only about 200m from a small town, I didn’t think it was required. I stayed up in the salon to watch the show and was more concerned about more important things like how to best capture the thunderstorm on video. It was a pretty cool effect to have the whole anchorage suddenly lit up like a camera flash every 10-15 seconds, and the little iPhone lens was not up to the task. Pretty soon, the flashes were every 5-10 seconds and the thunder was very pronounced. Seems that it would soon be on top of us.
In the span of about 30 minutes from when Christa went back below, the lightning was close enough to now hear the pronounced cracks of thunder close by, some of which were so close you could feel them. I started to see ground strikes on the points of land surrounding the anchorage, 1-2 km away from the boat (I use an approximate 350 m/s speed of sound for an estimate on distance). With maybe only a passing thought to the consequences of the situation while still enjoying the show, I was confident we were not at risk because our short 63′ mast height was surrounded by many more, much taller boats. Plus, with 18-20 boats around us, that seemed like pretty good odds, even if we were all the same height. I think I may have just started to remember something I read about multi-boat lightning strikes when…CRACK!
We got hit!
I don’t really recall what occurred in what order in the short period after the hit. Some of it comes from Christa, and some of it from my memory in the days that followed. These memories are likely out of order, and affected by what I think I should have done. (As an aside, do a Google search for flawed/false/faulty/distorted memory following a notable event. Interesting stuff.) Between the two of us, what we think happened is as follows…
My first thought was that the sound was actually quite subdued compared to other close calls with lightning, including this very storm. It was “only” a CRACK/POP, not a thunderous BOOM like I had experienced from close calls before. (I later learned from Christa below, and other boats around us, for them it was a massive BOOM. Some boats said it was violent enough they felt it and thought they themselves were hit). I seemed to still have all my faculties, so I started to look around. One of the eyelids to the courtesy LED lights was at my feet, after blowing off the light leading to the front seating area. I think it bounced off me as it flew by. All the LEDs showed burn marks. The electrical panel is separated into alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) circuit boards. The AC side was dark, and the DC side was momentarily all lit up (I think), then back to a few systems that were still on. The Magnum Inverter/Charger control panel was dark, and the water maker panel below it was all lit up. All this took maybe a second or two.
I then yelled “UP!” to get Christa on deck. She says she heard, “GET UP HERE!” which is interesting. In short order she was in the salon, and I asked if she was OK. She said yes, and was I OK. I don’t think I did answer her, and instead I said we need to check the bilges to confirm whether water is coming in through a hole, or holes, caused by lightning exiting the boat.
Christa later said that when she initially came up, I was standing in the middle of the salon holding the right side of my head. We don’t know if this is because I was hit in the head by the flying light cover (it doesn’t weigh anything) or a reflex to cover my ear to shield from the noise.
She went back down on the starboard side, and I did the port side. Neither of us saw any water coming in, but I did see smoke emanating from somewhere on the port side. I ran to get a better flashlight than my headlamp I was then using, but could not find where the smoke was coming from.
I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the port side passage way, placed it on the galley top and told Christa we had a fire somewhere. I told her to pack her ditch bag and be ready to leave in a hurry in the dinghy. She has previously fashioned some pull tabs for the snap shackles that hold the dinghy to the davit, so in the event of no electrics, you simply have to pull two tabs and the dinghy is free with a short drop to the water.
During this discussion I turned off the master switch to the house batteries, and both engine batteries. Christa then reminded me of the generator battery switch as well, although this may have come later.
Now that we were at “dead ship” (meaning all systems are disabled) I went back to try and find the source of the smoke, which I feared was a growing fire. I could not find a source, although I guessed it was from the panel covering the inverter/charger which would make sense as the AC side of the electrical systems was gone. Even at dead ship, there was an alarm buzzer going off behind the helm, which is accessible by opening the electrical panel. I was annoyed at this noise at first then eventually realized it should not be receiving power with no batteries on, then realized it sounded like the bilge high water alarm. We both rushed to check the main bilges, but thankfully they were still dry.
I eventually tracked this buzzer/alarm down to the back of the port side ignition control panel. It was the same audible alarm associated with the various engine systems if they fail, or prior to hitting the start button. I simply unplugged it, but never did figure out where it was getting power from.
We opened a few hatches to clear the smoke, and brought our PFDs into the salon. The fire seemed to be out and the smoke was clearing. I had opened all access panels to wherever I could think of and could no longer see or smell a fire. I then packed a few more items in our ditch bags. Boat papers, passports, cash, shave kit, clothes, etc anticipating spending a number of days ashore.
I’m not sure how much time had passed, but just as we were starting to be confident the boat was in a stable condition i.e. not on fire nor sinking, the thunderstorm that was approaching, was now firmly on top of the anchorage. We tried to take a picture and video to show what it was like, but we weren’t very effective. While we were initially facing south, we were now facing north in substantial winds.
Looking aft off the boat, there were white foaming streaks caused by the wind so that indicates 35kts or more. We later learned from others whose instruments were still working, that it got to a sustained 45kts with the storm over head. We had been in gusts up to 42kts before, and were confident in our anchor gear so we weren’t too concerned about us dragging but always concerned about others dragging into us. Plus, having just survived a lightning strike, we probably placed strong wind much lower on our holy f— matrix. People with radar said that the storm looked about 6 miles wide, and just kind of stayed parked over the sound until it blew out a few hours later. Other anchorages very close by only received some rain showers but nothing notable.
It was probably about this time I was thinking the wind was no big deal that I started to realize that we had not yet looked for nor found a place where the lightning exited, and one of these exits could have been via the anchor chain, thereby weakening it somewhere to a breaking point and causing us to float free.
We already had the starboard engine out from the previous day, so I decided it would be a good time to check at what systems were still functioning. As I went to the helm, I could smell the very distinct burned electrical wire smell again. Anyone who has played with electricity; whether house, car or boat is familiar with this smell. It seemed to be coming from the port engine ignition control panel. Christa thought the same, then we realized we had not checked the engine compartments to see if any water was getting in there.
The wind and rain had now started to calm a bit so I opened the starboard side, and Christa opened the port. She immediately said the smell was stronger in there and jumped in to find the wiring harness had been severely damaged, with some melted plastic that had dripped onto the sail drive.
We now had 2 engines disabled with the back side of the storm approaching and starting to whip the wind up again and no way to stop the boat from dragging with our engines. I made sure the emergency anchor was ready to go, and we waited for the second gust front to blow through.
I eventually thought to get back to systems checks, and went to the electrical panel. We turned everything off, and I switched the house batteries back on. One by one I started turning systems on, starting with things I though we might need. Pretty soon we both got a whiff of burned electrical wires, so I turned of the house batteries again. We did learn that all 3 electrical toilets still worked, the fresh water pump, the main VHF radio and the dinghy davit. None of our portable electrics seemed to be impacted, so we still had both our cell phones, 2 portable VHF radios and a Garmin InReach. We found out later, the VHF only powered up but did not actually work.
In the time that followed, I sent an email to our insurance broker, and called their emergency number. We then sent a text to friends anchored very close by explaining that we are OK, but got hit by lightning. They immediately offered assistance and invited us to their boat for dinner. It was great to have friends near by. By now, it was now mid-morning, and people were starting to mill around inspecting their boats with an eerie calm that followed the storm. I went on deck to see what I could check out for exterior damage as well. There was nothing obvious, but with binoculars I could see that one of two antenna mounts on the top of the mast was hanging down the side with no antenna attached to it any longer. I assume this is the AIS antenna since the VHF still looked like it worked (we found out later, it was actually the reverse).
Later that day, once that sky started to clear up a bit, I jumped in the water to try and find if there was any damage to the hull. This was maybe 2 hours after the storm blew out. Unfortunately the storm had churned things up in the water so I couldn’t see beyond 3-4′ in front of me, even though the water was flat calm. I couldn’t find anything obvious, although I needed to do a better job once the water cleared up and I had access to some scuba gear.
So there we were.